When Is a Print Better than an Original?

There is much discussion these days within the art market about prints versus originals, and which is a better value/investment for collectors.

Some subscribe to the theory that the only art worth collecting is original work. Moreover, the belief by some art professionals is that canvas art are not a good value for collectors. Occasionally collectors come into our gallery and say, “I only collect originals.” When the collector is questioned or qualified further, most often we find that they are collecting art by local and/or regionally “unknown” artists who are not marketed well nationally or internationally.

These artists may have originals “available,” but they have very little chance of being worth much more in the future without effective marketing of their respective works. In contrast, those collectors in the ’60s who had the foresight to purchase an Andy Warhol serigraph, a Marc Chagall signed-and-numbered lithograph, a Rauschenberg, a Lichtenstein, or a Picasso print, just to name a few, have seen their print works go up significantly in value over the years.

In fact, the high-end auction houses of the world have on staff fine art print curators. Some of the finest museums also have fine art print curators. This type of information lends itself to the question expressed in the headline: When Is a Print Better than an Original? Answer: It depends. After all, it’s all about the artist you’re collecting or selling. It is not about whether the work is a print or an original.

Art, like anything else, is valued according to supply and demand. Art that is found to be high in demand is typically supported by strong marketing and advertising efforts. Galleries get behind artists to help make them famous because they believe in the work. Collectors support this belief by laying their money on the “barrel-head” and making a purchase. Thus, an artist becomes established in the art world and has a higher probability of retaining and growing in value as time passes.

My question to fine- art professionals is this: Is it better to sell your client an original work by an unknown artist, or is it better to sell them a print by a known artist, who has the potential of becoming historically significant? Of course, we as art professionals would like for our collectors to have original works by artists of significance, but such artists are often out of the price range of many collectors. Additionally, artists of note often are in such a high demand for their original works that collectors are happy to purchase a beautiful fine-art print–price and demand notwithstanding.

So why would a collector spend upwards of $8,000 for a print? I believe it has everything to do with the type of art that is attractive and exciting to the collector(s) as well as the marketing of the artists’ works. Why are some artists’ originals in such high demand? Why do some artists have print editions sell-out? The answers can be found in the artists’ talents, appeal, supply and demand, and marketing efforts. When it comes to sports icons, such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, statistics support claims that they’re the best of the best. When it comes to artists, our most accurate benchmark is the demand for their work.

In other words, are collectors paying to place these known artists’ works in their collections? Original or print? It’s not about which is better. It’s about what is best for your collector.